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Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

Robin Copland

When companies get good at providing a service, it becomes convenient to put more and more business their way.  They provide an efficient route to market; they give suppliers the chance to make one big delivery instead of four or five smaller ones; their marketing campaigns are slick and entice more customers through their – sometimes electronic – doors.

From the consumers’ perspective, they provide a glitzy, one-stop-shop service that saves time, trouble and hassle.  Eventually, they inhabit large green- or brown-field sites on the edges of great conurbations, with lots of parking and the odd ancillary service provided to make the whole retail experience that bit more bearable.  So, around and about every Tesco/ Asda/ Morrisons/ Sainsbury/ Walmart or Carrefour, there lies in close proximity and tied by a joint-marketing umbilical cord, a KFC/ McDonalds/ Taco Bell/ W H Smith/ Boots the Chemist – oh, I could go on and on.

Convenient, easy and totally in-tune with our fast-moving consumery-goody type of lazy society.  Meanwhile of course, tumbleweed blows unchecked through moribund city centres and we all bemoan how our shopping experience is nothing like as varied as it used to be.

And let’s be blunt, dear reader, it’s all your fault. 

Not you personally, of course; no – but we all share in the blame because what has happened is that we have sleep-walked into a situation where the retailers call the shots: they tell us what we want to buy; they research and come up with the perfectly-shaped carrot; we allow ourselves to become wedded to their membership clubs.  I absolutely will not allow the government, whom I have elected, to issue me with an identity card, for fear of Big Brother taking over, but in the meantime, I will give all of my important personal details to an unelected purveyor of groceries and other conveniences so that I can get 1p off every £20 or so of my already-inflated grocery bill.  The irony of it all is breathtaking.

And, as I say, it’s all our own fault. 

Suppliers bemoan the fact that there are limited routes to market; they argue against the imposition of terms and conditions that, more often than not, mean that the retailer has collected the money in from the ultimate consumer, then banks the money that they have collected in (sometimes) their own bank before arguing about credit and delaying paying the supplier (who made the stuff and who has already paid for the production of the goods) after however many days credit they demand just to allow the supplier’s foot through their door and onto the shelves.

And it’s happening now in the somewhat rarified world of books.  Why bother buying books from a bookstore when you can buy them electronically on the internet?  Why indeed?  Cut out the middleman; close another couple of city-centre shops and go green- or brown-field again – except this time, don’t let the pesky customer anywhere near the final product; just show them pictures and tell them how good it is.  Better still, invent an electronic reader, etc., etc..

In the Guardian of 25 June 2014, Alison Flood, former editor of the Bookseller magazine (have I mentioned electronic newspapers that are putting newsagents out of business?) writes of the row brewing between booksellers and Amazon.  Amazon is allegedly putting publishers under "heavy pressure" to introduce new terms. The Bookseller reports that these include the proviso that "should a book be out of stock from the publisher, Amazon would be entitled to supply its own copies to customers via its print-on-demand facilities", and that "books cannot be sold for a lower price than Amazon's anywhere, including on a publisher's own website".

Excuse me?  Read that last bit again!

The simple truth of the matter is this.  If you allow the power balance in a relationship to swing too far in one party’s favour, then they will begin to exploit their position.  Furthermore, they will begin to believe that what they are insisting on is only right and proper. 

There is a moral somewhere in all of this.  In the old days, we used to believe in “caveat emptor”.  Now, I think it should perhaps be rewritten as “Let the consumer and supplier beware”!

And, as I say, it is all our own fault.

Robin Copland

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